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New DTI chief to shake up utilities

A shake-up of privatised utility regulation, putting greater emphasis on consumer interest, will form a high priority for Labour's trade and industry team, John Battle, the newly appointed DTI minister said yesterday.

Mr Battle, widely seen as an effective shadow minister in opposition, has been rewarded with a wider-than-expected portfolio which is also likely to encompass science and technology, a job previously the remit of a separate Conservative minister, Ian Taylor.

The appointment also demonstrates that the DTI's role is being beefed up under Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade. The ministry is taking over responsibility for some employment issues and will spearhead legislation to introduce a minimum wage.

Ian McCartney, former shadow employment minister, has become the industry minister with a brief expected to cover employment and wage issues. A DTI source said yesterday: "Our impression is certainly that the ministry's role is being widened under Labour."

Mr Battle's appointment is likely to be greeted with guarded optimism by some privatised firms. Electricity companies will hope Mr Battle will agree to postpone domestic power competition, due to start from next April. His comments yesterday suggest a Bill to restructure the system of utility regulation could be put forward sooner than expected.

Several experts had suggested the issue would not be tackled in the first year of a Labour government because of restricted parliamentary time. Mr Battle said yesterday "Utility regulation and putting the consumer first will be one of our priorities.T he election is over. I have been covering energy and science matters and we've set our stall out, now we've got to get down to work."

Labour's utility reforms have been watered down in recent years, though the party remains committed to sharing excess company profits with consumers on top of the existing system of price cap regulation which cuts bills by a formula each year based on the rate of inflation. The regulators themselves would be backed by boards playing a non-executive role, a policy supported by the CBI and several utilities themselves.

But there was disappointment that Geoffrey Hoon, Labour's shadow telecommunications and science minister was leaving the DTI brief to join the Lord Chancellor's department. Mr Hoon had also been the party's spokesman on the millennium computer crisis, which is likely to be a serious headache for the Government.

Robin Guenier, head of task force 2000 the government sponsored advisory group set up to publicise the problem, said Mr Hoon's move was bad news.